A darker vision of the post-singularity: The Quantum Thief trilogy

TheQuantumThiefCoverI just finished reading Hannu Rajaniemi’s Quantum Thief trilogy: ‘The Quantum Thief‘, ‘The Fractal Prince‘, and ‘The Causal Angel‘.  (The official name of the trilogy is the Jean le Flambeur series, named after one of the chief protagonists, but everyone seems to call it the Quantum Thief trilogy instead.)

Most visions of society after the singularity (or something like the singularity) tend to be utopias, or near utopias.  Rajaneimi’s vision is far darker and more mixed, with some aspects being nightmarish.  Of course, from a story perspective, that actually makes for more fertile ground.

In the Quantum Thief universe, a posthuman civilization TheFractalPrinceCoverexists throughout the solar system, spread between numerous societies.  Mind uploading developed prior to AGI (artificial general intelligence).  Raw AGI itself has proven to be extremely dangerous and AGIs are referred to as “dragons.”  They are rarely released due to their ravenous and uncontrollable nature.  (Rajaneimi, in an interview, stated that this is not necessarily how he expects things would be, but that it was a useful plot device to restrain the story to being between human-like agents.)

The most powerful society in the inner solar system is the Sobornost, a series of collectives with billions of TheCausalAngelCoverminds, referred to as “gogols” in the story.  Gogols are either uploaded human minds or minds created in the template of human minds.  Just about every piece of Sobornost technology involves the use of legions of gogol slaves, implying that for much of humanity, existence has been reduced to the role of mind slaves.  The Sobornost is divided between physical substrates called guberniyas, with each one ruled by a “founder”, presumably one of the people who developed the Sobornost system.

The outer solar system is ruled by a series of collectives referred to as “Zokus”, which are initially presented as gaming circles.  But as the story progresses, it becomes apparent that Zoku society refers to just about any endeavor as a “game”, with an overarching governing authority referred to as the “Great Game” Zoku.   Zoku society appears to be far more appealing than the Sobornost, and they are essentially the Sobornost’s primary power rival.

But there are several other societies.  One is the Oubliette, a city on Mars that is on huge mechanical legs so that it can keep moving to avoid nanobot infections infesting the Martian surface.  The Oubliette society is a posthuman one, but one where everyone lives in human form, except when doing a tour of duty running the city’s machinery.  Every citizen also has control of just how much information they share in social interactions with others.

Another society is the city of Sirr, the last outpost of humanity on Earth, situated somewhere in the Middle East region, and constantly having to protect itself from Earth’s version of nanobot infections, referred to as wildcode.  And Oort, a society of humans living in the Oort cloud, the vast regions of cometary bodies extending for up to two light years from the Sun.  There are also references to societies of bear like creatures (presumably posthumans who adopted that shape for some reason) in the asteroid belt, as well as various mercenary clans.

The story begins with the main protagonist, a thief named Jean le Flambeur, serving time in a the “Dilemma Prison”, a virtual prison where prisoners are forced to regularly undergo painful prisoner dilemmas, a game theory exercise that, presumably, is meant to teach them that tit-for-tat is the most successful strategy, reforming them for society.  le Flambeur is rescued from the prison by the story’s other protagonist, Meili, a warrior from Oort working for the Sobornost.  le Flambeur’s thief skills are needed for a mysterious mission.

The stories go on to explore a number of concepts, such as how reliable our memories can be, the concept of self, whether or not and to what degree we have free will, and what it means to be human.  There are a lot of interesting ideas in these books, and plenty of action to keep things exciting.  And much of what is presented at the beginning is not how it appears.  If you like posthuman science fiction, I highly recommend them, with a qualification.

That qualification is that the prose is very dense.  Rajaneimi introduces new concepts without explanation and counts on the reader picking up their meaning through context, which I for one wasn’t always able to do.  I actually found the first and last books manageable in this regard, with an occasional Wikipedia break helping, but the middle book was a tough slog, with many concepts given names from Islamic spirituality and/or Arabian mythology, whose meanings often weren’t readily available from quick Google searches.

In some cases, I suspected the dense prose masked scientific or plot weaknesses.  And some concepts never seem to get an adequate explanation, with several interpretations of the narrative possible.  I’m generally not a fan of this type of writing, and probably wouldn’t have tolerated it if Rajaneimi’s story and universe hadn’t been so compelling.

But they are, and that’s why, despite its flaws (which some might see as strengths), I still recommend these books.

Greg Egan’s Amalgam is close to the most likely interstellar civilization

The other day, I did a post engaging in speculation on, assuming we don’t discover a completely new physics, what I thought an interstellar civilization might look like.  In summary:

  1. Given special relativity, travel faster than the speed of light is impossible.  This has been verified by innumerable experiments, and nothing in nature has been observed to travel faster than light, at least not yet.  There are various notions of ways around this (wormholes, Alcubierre drives, etc) but they are very speculative, requiring the existence of either exotic or cosmological amounts of energy.
  2. Even getting a decent sized spaceship to an appreciable percentage of the speed of light requires appalling amounts of energy.  This has led some scientists to conclude that humans will never explore beyond the solar system.
  3. Sending a small probe (possibly microscopic) is still extremely expensive, but conceivable.
  4. A fleet of small probes could be sent to other stars.  Once there, they could find local raw resources and bootstrap a communication and exploration infrastructure.
  5. These probes could even manufacture copies of themselves to be sent to stars further out.
  6. Over time, an interstellar communications network could be developed, allowing information from throughout the galaxy to be transmitted back to Earth, and AI (artificial intelligence) entities could be sent to the stars to explore.
  7. If mind uploading of some form or another is possible, human minds could be sent to the stars.  If mind uploading is not possible, humanity may have to content itself with the information it receives from its interstellar network.

Wyrd Smythe pointed out to me that this was more or less the vision that Greg Egan has with his Amalgam stories.  Egan is a science fiction author who has explored the concept of mind uploading extensively in his fiction, perhaps more than anyone else so far.  I’d read some of Egan’s work before, but had missed the Amalgam ones.  The Amalgam is the name of the interstellar civilization in the stories.

The Amalgam is introduced in the short story, ‘Riding the Crocodile’, which is available for free on Egan’s web site.  Egan calls the self replicating probes “spores”, which I think is a pretty descriptive label.  He describes the operation of the spores in the opening pages of another story, ‘Glory’, which is also available for free.  If the idea of this type of civilization interests you, I highly recommend both stories.  (I actually had read ‘Glory’ some years ago, but hadn’t realized the Amalgam background to it.)

IncandescenceCoverIf you find yourself with a burning desire to know more about the Aloof, the mysterious alien network in ‘Riding the Crocodile’, then you can read Egan’s novel, ‘Incandescence‘, which gives insights into them.  I should warn you that, while I mostly enjoyed ‘Incandescence’, particularly all of the fascinating ideas that it explores, I often found it tedious.  Most of the novel is about aliens working out the principles of general relativity, which it describes in what I found at times to be excessive detail.  (Egan’s stated attitude is that it’s okay for a fictional book to require you to take notes to keep up.  Not sure how many readers will agree.  I didn’t take notes, but can’t say I always kept up either.)

Egan gives insights into the Aloof, but only indirectly.  The reader has to piece them together from the clues left by the two plot threads.  Many readers finish the book in a state of confusion.  If you do read the book, and find yourself in that state, at least with regards to the Aloof, my recommendation would be to read the opening pages again, up to the point where the Aloof is described, then reread the final page.

While I think Egan’s Amalgam concept has a lot going for it, there are a couple of things about it that I find a bit dubious.  The first is that the society described is very utopic.  Everyone in the Amalgam just gets along with everyone else.  Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to live in such a society.  It follows a common vision in science fiction, of the post-scarcity civilization.  While it’s nice to hope for that, I’m not sure how realistic it is.  Even if your resources span the galaxy, there will still only be so much of those resources, which means economy and conflict will likely still be facts of life.

The other is that the Amalgam is an conglomeration formed from multiple alien species.  I’ve given my reasons why I think that’s unlikely.  Egan does leave room for the possibility that some or all of those other species are “uplifted” ones, species whose intelligence has been boosted by other intelligent species, which I think is more plausible.

Egan’s vision is the closest I’ve seen in science fiction to what I think is the most realistic vision of humanity reaching the stars.  Of course, even the most educated guesses of what reaching the stars will look like is probably as far off as a 15th century monk’s speculation on how humans might reach the moon.  But the Amalgam strikes me as more likely than the common Star Trek like visions.  (Not that I’m not a fan of Star Trek.)

Worm ‘Brain’ uploaded into robot, which then behaves like a worm

Steve Morris clued me in to this article: Worm ‘Brain’ Uploaded Into Lego Robot | Singularity HUB.

Can a digitally simulated brain on a computer perform tasks just like the real thing?

For simple commands, the answer, it would seem, is yes it can. Researchers at the OpenWorm project recently hooked a simulated worm brain to a wheeled robot. Without being explicitly programmed to do so, the robot moved back and forth and avoided objects—driven only by the interplay of external stimuli and digital neurons.

The article comes with this accompanying video:

Now, the C Elegans worm has about the simplest central nervous system in nature, with only 300 neurons and 7000 synapses (compared to human’s 86 billion neurons and 100 trillion synapses).  Still, the fact that putting that connectome (the map of a brain’s connections) into a robot produced behavior that resembles what an actual C Elegans would do is intriguing.

The article ends by asking the obvious question:

In this example, we’re talking very simple behaviors. But could the result scale? That is, if you map a human brain with similarly high fidelity and supply it with stimulation in a virtual or physical environment—would some of the characteristics we associate with human brains independently emerge? Might that include creativity and consciousness?

There’s only one way to find out.

Of course, many will insist that we shouldn’t even try.  But I suspect that train will leave the station regardless.

X-Men: Days of Future Past, and multiple instances of a mind

X-Men_Days_of_Future_Past_posterThis weekend, I watched X-Men: Days of Future Past, which I enjoyed.  This post discusses some aspects of that movie, most notably the ending, so if you haven’t seen it yet and don’t want to be spoiled, you might consider skipping it until later.

In the movie, mankind is in a devastating war with the mutants, with the Sentinels (killer robots) relentlessly finding and destroying the mutants.  In the process, much of Earth has become a wasteland.

One of the mutants has the ability to send a person’s consciousness into their past self, with knowledge of the future, and the ability to alter that future while they are in their past self.  In an attempt to stop the Sentinel war before it begins, Wolverine’s consciousness is sent back to 1973 to work with Xavier’s and Magneto’s past selves (the two main mutant leaders, and enemies in most of the films) to prevent the event that enables the war.

Right off the bat, this consciousness going back in time notion is similar to the one in Edge of Tomorrow which I discussed in a previous post.  Just as in that movie (and it countless other sci-fi scenarios), having someone’s consciousness go back in time is inherently dualistic (as in mind-body dualism).  But Xavier’s powers themselves seem inherently dualistic, so this isn’t necessarily a change in assumption from what’s always been there.

Anyway, after many trials and tribulations, our heroes succeed in altering time.  The Sentinel war winks out of existence.  I was impressed that the film went out of its way to make sure we know that the war timeline disappears.  So there’s no possibility that a version of our heroes continue to suffer the consequences of the war in a separately existing timeline.  (As some of us discussed, this was something the Edge of Tomorrow film failed to make clear, even possibly implied the opposite.)

The war timeline is replaced with one where all of our favorite characters are still alive and apparently living in a much better reality.  Wolverine, after his adventures in the past, wakes up in this new future and is astonished to find Jean Grey, his unrequited love, still alive (along with Scott Summers to make sure he keeps his hands off her).  He immediately goes to Xavier’s office and reveals that he is the Wolverine from the alternate timeline, whereupon Xavier welcomes him and they begin a long talk.

And here is the reason for this post.  There remains a tragic event here.  The Wolverine that lived from 1973 to the present, dies.  (The film only shows the alternate Wolverine for a few seconds in 1973 when war-future Wolverine’s consciousness is momentarily yanked back.)  Oh, we don’t see him die, but we know he winks out of existence because his consciousness is replaced by the one from the war timeline.  The people who knew and loved that Wolverine, who had had shared experiences with him throughout the years of the new timeline, are bound to view it as a shocking loss, something the film ignores.

Of course, you could point out that all of the surviving characters at the end of the war timeline die when that timeline ends, and that would be true.  But since their entire timeline ends, there’s no one around to mourn them.  That isn’t true for the peacetime Wolverine.  Who knows how much better his life might have been in the alternate four decades (we learn he is a teacher), or how any friends will react to this (more) war weary version of Wolverine from the war timeline, who may no longer know many of them.

And if mind-body dualism is true, how is it even possible for there to be multiple versions with different memories?  Would that mean that each timeline has it’s own version of disembodied soul for each person?  If so, which one might go on to an afterlife?  Or would there be an afterlife for each timeline?  The film almost avoids these difficulties by not having the continued existence of that other timeline, except they let them leak in by having two versions of Wolverine in the film.

Of course, the films have made Wolverine the main character.  (They’re actually getting a lot of mileage out of that character, and Hugh Jackman.)  And having the version of the character that experienced all the losses we’ve seen over those films, be the one to see a reality where all of that tragedy is undone, makes the final resolution in this film all the better.  Unless you’re peacetime Wolverine, or one of his friends or lovers.

The movie is fantasy and I’m almost certainly applying much more thought to this than the filmmakers did (or most of the audience), although it would be interesting to see any character fallout in a sequel.

But this fictional dilemma raises an issue a society might have to actually deal with someday if mind uploading, or any other kind of mind duplicating or cloning technology, is ever developed.

Which version of a mind is the one true one?  Is that even a reasonable question anymore?  And if they fork at some point, how far do the alternate versions have to go before we regard the end of a particular version as a death?  Would such a mind ever really be dead if at least one instance of it was still around?

If one of those versions committed a crime, who should be held responsible for that crime?  (If we only held the particular version responsible, what’s to stop anyone who wanted to commit a crime from spawning a version of themselves for just that purpose?)

Many might be tempted to say that the issues involved are simply too difficult.  That’s it’s easier to conclude that such mind duplicating is impossible.  Of course, reality is under no obligation to make things easy for us, as it has frequently demonstrated throughout history.  But it raises the interesting possibility that a society might be so disturbed by these questions that they make multiple instances of a mind taboo, a forbidden practice.

Is the human species still evolving? Of course.

It looks like Bill Nye, the science guy, is coming out with a new book on evolution, with an excerpt at Popular Science: Is The Human Species Still Evolving? | Popular Science.

We cannot step away from evolution. Our genomes are always collecting mutations, and we are always making mate selections. Are humans preferentially mating with other humans who are tall? Blonde or not blonde?

Are smart people actually producing significantly smarter offspring, who end up making more money and ever so slowly outcompeting other families? Or is intelligence a losing trait, because highly educated couples tend to have smaller families, so when something goes wrong there are fewer siblings left to carry the genes forward? Or since highly educated men and women have babies later in life than those that don’t squander their best childbearing years in universities, do the babies of the highly educated enter the world with more trouble in childbirth, and are they prone to more subtle gene troubles that result from later mother and fatherhood? Cue the spooky music.

When I was younger, I reasoned that evolution had ended for humanity because we lived in organized societies that protected the weak.  Without the weak dying in the wilderness, I thought, natural selection couldn’t…select.  And without that selection, traits couldn’t disappear nor new ones dominate, and so evolution couldn’t happen.  But my understanding of natural selection was simplistic.

First off, just because we now live in societies that, at least sometimes, protect the weak, doesn’t mean that mutations don’t happen.  Without the harsh wilderness selection that our ancestors lived in, that probably means that there’s a lot more variation in the human genome than existed, say, 10,000 years ago.  Mutations that might have quickly been selected out in hunter gatherer societies have more of a chance in civilization.

But my second misunderstanding was in believing that natural selection is about survival.  It is, partly, but it’s more about reproductive success.  And animals with certain traits don’t have to be completely unsuccessful reproductively for their traits to disappear.  Given enough time and generations, they only have to be slightly less successful than animals with different traits.

And finally, traits that will be successful in a hunter gatherer culture, such as males with athletic ability and aggression, might be less successful in a farming or industrial society.  Selection is still happening.  It’s just happening at the mate selection and cultural selection level.  (Which is actually still natural selection, if you take a long enough view.)  Humans have just developed the ability to manipulate our environment, and hence the selection criteria.

Another interesting complication with all this is the development of birth control, which essentially allows us to indulge our reproductive instincts without actually reproducing.  That plus the cost of raising additional kids in a modern society means that the most successful people aren’t always going to produce the most offspring.  What effect this might have on evolution over the long term is hard to predict.

Of course, as Nye briefly alludes to, this assumes we won’t go through some type of Singularity in the near future, or, perhaps more likely, take control of our evolution with genetic engineering.  It might be that the era of unguided evolution on this planet is nearing its end, at least for humans.  Possibly.

Who was the first person to have an afterlife?

Click through for full sized version and the red button caption.

via Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal.

The idea that only humans have an afterlife has always been one that I find interesting.  If only humans have them, at what point in our evolutionary history did we obtain them?  Did Neanderthals have them?  What about Homo-erectus?  If we started having an afterlife at some point, wouldn’t that mean that the first person to be eligible for one couldn’t expect to have their parents there?

I know that many religious believers think animals do have an afterlife.  But that just seems to move the line of difficulty.  How far back on the evolutionary chain do we have to go before an afterlife doesn’t come into the equation?  Is it just animals?  Or do plants have them as well?  Is the spinach I had on my Subway  sandwich at lunch today in spinach heaven?  If only animals, what about animal-plant hybrids like green sea slugs?

I personally think it’s unlikely that we have an afterlife waiting for us, but I could see humans conceivably creating one someday.  Which raises an interesting question.  Suppose we developed technology that would allow us to somehow put the minds of long dead relatives into a technological afterlife*.  No doubt those relatives would also want to see their long dead relatives in that afterlife.

How far back would we allow it to go?  Would we stop after anatomically modern humans, or continue until whoever was being resurrected wasn’t intelligent enough to care about their parents?  Or at some other point?

* No, I don’t know of any laws of physics that would allow this, but some transhumanists have speculated about it.


Transcendence2014PosterI finally watched the movie, Transcendence.  I had commented a while back, when the trailer came out, the problems I had with what appeared to be the central premise of the film.  Since then, there’s been a lot of harsh reviews of the film.  I did find a lot of silliness in it, but overall it was more intelligent than I expected.

I’ve written before that I think the danger of an AI revolt is vastly overblown.  For AIs to revolt, they would need to care about their own wellbeing, to have their own agenda.  Except for perhaps a few questionable university research projects, we’re unlikely to produce such AIs.  As organic creatures, we all have evolved instincts for self actualization, but AIs wouldn’t have that evolutionary background.  Their strongest instincts would be to fulfill the purpose that we designed them for.

That said, this movie isn’t about an AI revolt, but about something I think is a more realistic threat.  What happens when we upload the mind of a person and their intellect becomes far more vast than it was before?  Is the uploaded entity really the same person?  What does it even mean to be “the same person”?  How much of a connection does such an entity have with its old friends, family, and humanity overall?  And as we become digitally integrated, are we in danger of losing our humanity?  Should we be concerned about that loss?

The movie explores all of these topics.  And while much of what happens in it is nonsensical (particularly toward the end) and the character’s motivations aren’t always well developed, I think it does a decent job of exploring those topics.  In the end, it doesn’t take a definite stand on the questions, although it does have characters articulate the standard positions.

So, while I can’t exactly give it a glowing recommendation, I think it was worth the time and five bucks I spent renting it off of Amazon.

Transforming ourselves takes a lot less energy than terraforming Mars

Popular Science has a brief article laying out the three steps to terraform Mars.

The recipe for creating a habitable planet turns out to be surprisingly simple: Just add water—and atmospheric gases. Mars has both, relics from four billion years ago when the planet was warm and wet. “When it comes to Mars, and only Mars, the notion of terraforming is no longer in the realm of science fiction,” says NASA astrobiologist Chris McKay. Humans could warm the planet and restore a thick atmosphere in a matter of decades, but producing breathable levels of oxygen would take 100,000 years with today’s best technology: plants. New inventions could, in theory, speed that along too. “Living off the land is going to be essential for long-term human explorers beyond Earth,” says Laurie Leshin, a geochemist on the Mars Curiosity team. “We have to figure out how to do this stuff.”

The article talks about three broad requirements: raising the temperature, building the atmosphere, and releasing water.  But it omits discussion of the easiest thing we could do to live there: modify ourselves.  Altering humans to live in the Martian environment would be a lot faster and require a lot less energy than modifying the entire planet.

Of course, we don’t know how to do that yet, but as the excerpt above relays, we also don’t currently know how to terraform Mars in less than 100,000 years.  We might figure out how to transform Mars more rapidly before we figure out how to transform ourselves, but I suspect we’ll still know how to do the self transformation long before we can complete the actual planet transformation.

This assumes we don’t completely cede Mars to increasingly intelligent machines, machines we might someday be uploaded into.  Long term, distinguishing sophisticated machines from engineered life (or re-engineered life) might eventually be semantic.

The Singularity Is Further Than It Appears – Charlie’s Diary

Are we headed for a Singularity? Is it imminent?

I write relatively near-future science fiction that features neural implants, brain-to-brain communication, and uploaded brains. I also teach at a place called Singularity University. So people naturally assume that I believe in the notion of a Singularity and that one is on the horizon, perhaps in my lifetime.

I think it’s more complex than that, however, and depends in part on one’s definition of the word. The word Singularity has gone through something of a shift in definition over the last few years, weakening its meaning. But regardless of which definition you use, there are good reasons to think that it’s not on the immediate horizon.

via The Singularity Is Further Than It Appears – Charlie’s Diary.

Ramez Naam is guest blogging on Charlie Stross’s site.  The main point of this article is that the singularity isn’t twenty years away, or likely to be as much of a nerd rapture as many people assume.

Naam did a follow up article on the timing and rate of a singularity takeoff, which is also very much worth checking out.

I’ve made similar arguments myself, so these articles resonated with me.  The singularity is unlikely to be a hard takeoff in our lifetimes, and AIs are unlikely to be as god-like as many singularity enthusiasts (or alarmists) assume.

After human extinction, a robot civilization?

This is a review of Charlie Stross’s science fiction novel ‘Saturn’s Children‘.  It’s been out for a few years, but I wanted to read his latest, ‘Neptune’s Brood’, which is a sequel (of sorts), so I started with this one.

Stross describes a universe where humans have gone extinct, but where the sentient machines that once served humanity are still around.  No one is quite sure exactly what happened to the humans, but it is implied that, having built a servant class of machines to do all of the work, they retreated into internal pleasures, losing interest in the outside world, including in reproduction.  And so they gradually declined and disappeared.

The robots in the story are described with human like intentions and motivations.  The main character, Freya Nakamichi-47, is female android designed to be a concubine for humans.  With humans being extinct, she is now largely obsolete.  In addition, most of the humanoid machines in this civilization, at least those who travel in space, have adopted a dwarf like body plan that conserves resources, making Freya a large freak among her own kind.

For these reasons, the story starts with Freya contemplating suicide.  However, events intervene and an adventure ensues that takes her to several locations in the solar system.  She starts out on blimp cities in the upper atmosphere of Venus, visits Mercury, Mars, Callisto (one of the moons of Jupiter) and Eris (a dwarf planet far out beyond the orbit of Pluto).

Throughout the story, Stross is able to insert several interesting concepts including the dirigible cities of Venus mentioned above, a sky hook above Venus to swing aircraft into space to rendezvous with an interplanetary craft, a space elevator over Mars counterweighted by Phobos (presumably with its orbit adjusted), and similar but less extravagant space elevator over Callisto.

Stross manages to include multiple existing ideas for interplanetary travel.  The first is a carrier that constantly follows an orbit between Venus and Mercury, with the skyhook mentioned above shooting passenger craft to rendezvous with it.  Another is a solar sail with the sail made from a cloud of plasma held in place by an electromagnetic field.  Nuclear powered VASIMIR rockets and nuclear pulse propulsion are described as a relatively fast, but expensive, means of interplanetary travel.

I say relatively fast because travel as described is still slow, taking months and years in many cases.  This is mitigated somewhat by all of the characters being machines.  On one trip, Freya finds herself with a room above the nuclear reactor and takes heavy does of radiation, which she is able to recover from by visiting a repair shop at her destination.

But the most interesting concepts that Stross explores are the motivations and attitudes of the characters in the story, that is, of the machines.  They are presented as very human like.  Indeed, many of the key characters were designed to be as human as possible in order to relate to them, which gives them many of the same motivations and weaknesses.

With reference to Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, the characters are described as having been designed to serve humanity, to put human needs ahead of theirs.  With humans gone, this has left a portion of them with a degree of free will.  This is only a portion because a class of aristos have arisen which enslave most of the population.

One of the dangers for Freya, as a self owned entity, is that she might be made into an arbeiter, a slave, controlled by one of the aristos.  So the civilization described is a medieval one, with a class of nobles (aristos), a class of serfs (arbeiters), and a few independents, which includes Freya.

Due to their programming, the characters have a worshipful attitude toward humans, referring to them as “the creators”, with discussions of who they were and what they believed treated as a type of theology.  Stross is never far from humor, as this quote from one of the minor characters during a theology debates shows:

It is from the creators themselves that the holy scriptures of evolution come to us, from the great prophet Darwin, peace be unto him, and his saintly disciples Dawkins and Gould.

Freya is a copy of an earlier android names Rhea, and has a number of sister copies, referred to as sibs, of whom she is the most junior, and with which she shares correspondence.  As each sib dies, their soul chip is removed and sent to the other sibs, who can use them to acquire the experiences of her late sister.  For most of the book, Freya has the chip of an elder sister in her head, and learns a great deal from her.

A while back, I briefly reviewed Ann Leckie’s ‘Ancillary Justice’, which I praised for its explorations of self and how a distributed mind might work, and the drawbacks it could face.  Stross explores many of the same concepts here, although his work is much nerdier, spending less time on character development and more on the concepts themselves.

Stross spends some time on free will, and the extent to which machines can have it, particularly in relation to humans.  Freya, in particular, as an android designed to be a courtesan, has strong sexual desires, which are powerfully triggered by any human like android.  In the presence of an actual human, her urges would be so powerful that she would have no free will.  She would have no choice but to fall in love with a creator, with a human.

English: Photograph by Simon Bradshaw, 1 May 2...
Stross: photo by Simon Bradshaw (via Wikipedia)

Stross is a good story teller, and he manages to introduce plot twists that put earlier events in the story into a new light.  But anyone thinking about reading him should be warned that his prose tends to be dense, in that he is constantly throwing out ideas and references that many might find obscure.

This puts some work on the reader.  I recall finding some of his earlier work interesting, but frustrating because of how much was going over my head.  Either I’m more well read today, or Stross has learned to moderate his prose density.  I didn’t find ‘Saturn’s Children’ nearly as much as a heavy lift as ‘Singularity Sky’.

It might also be due to the fact that I read this in a Kindle app on a tablet, which allowed me to do a quick web search on any concept that I didn’t understand.  Although I don’t recall using that capability much on this read.

So, if relatively hard nerdy science fiction is your type of reading, then I can hardily recommend this book.  Like most good science fiction, it functions as a thought experiment on how a machine civilization might work.  But, as I mention above, Stross never gets too serious, with many scenes having an absurdity that may have you laughing out loud.